Lost in Translation

Lera Boroditsky, Lost in Translation, The Wall Street Journal, July 23, 2010
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Language impacts our thinking; how we see, understand, and interpret events; and our relationship to time, space, and causality.

That language influences our thinking has been demonstrated in studies of Russian language speakers, indigenous tribes, the Piraha, and Spanish and Japanese language speakers. Because the Russian language has more words for light and dark blues, Russian speakers have greater ability to visually discriminate shades of blue. Because some indigenous tribes use “north, south, east and west” instead of “left” and “right” to indicate direction, members of these tribes have great spatial orientation. Because the Piraha use inexact terms such as “few” and “many” instead of actual numbers to quantify, they are not able to keep track of exact quantities. Because Spanish and Japanese languages don’t have agents of causality of accidents, ("The vase broke itself," rather than "John broke the vase.") they are less able to remember the agent of the accident. In a study comparing cross-linguistic eye-witness memory of Spanish, Japanese, and English speakers, subjects watched videos of people doing something intentionally or accidentally. When asked to recall who did the action, Spanish and Japanese speakers were able to remember the agents of intentional events as well as English speakers because their language would mention the agent of intentional events; however, they were not able to remember the agents of accidental events as well as English speakers.

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